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From now on, I only want to see Shakespeare from nerdom icons

26 Jun

In the last year, I’ve fallen in love with Shakespeare all over again.

All thanks to a time lord and the father of Buffy & Angel (a WAY better love story than Twilight).

I have always (and will always) have one foot stuck firmly in academia. I love the study of things—the consideration of minutiae, the historical context, the different lenses of interpretation. The -isms. God, I do love the -isms.

After graduating from my MFA, I took a nice break from the highfalutin, practically burying myself in sci-fi and satirical cartoons. Then it came time for me to teach Shakespeare again, and I took executive order and chose Hamlet for my class. I reread the key speeches and all the scenes marked in my collected works. I was touched all over again, remembering how crazy beautiful language can be, how crazy perfect. Shakespeare, if read with good comprehension, can pull on you in a way that is almost invasive. Your innermost, irrational whims displayed before you, as plot. He was a genius, no ifs, nor ands, nor buts about it. Genius.

I am of the faction that believes that Shakespeare must be experienced, as well as read, so I went on a mission to find a good production of Hamlet that my students could understand. I found this one. Holy hell crazy-good performance, batman. Of course I loved Tennant as the Doctor, but Tennant did something truly special for me with Hamlet, and his treatment of the language was so skilled it seemed as if he were adlibbing that verse. Wonderful.

While not everybody cast in Whedon’s recent take on Much Ado about Nothing was  quite as much at ease with the Bard’s lines as others (though no one tripped), as an ensemble, they were wonderful. At times, I was literally bouncing in my seat and clapping my hands like a six year old. I never want to see a stuffy, academic, straight-backed performance of either of these plays again. When I reread them, I will forever see Tennant running towards down-center stage, stopping and asking in a pleading voice “Am I a coward?” And Alexi Denishof gamboling around Whedon’s backyard. They made those moments real (again) but also familiar, something I could imagine experiencing in my own life.

I think the transition from Sci-fi to Shakespeare is not the stretch it would seem, and if you think about it, it makes total sense. The key to delivering Shakespeare well is to speak as though off the cuff, while not butchering any of the pacing and beauty of the verse. This is difficult for a twenty-first century actor, and it takes some time to absorb a different way of speaking. Much like the blending of Chinese and English that Whedon uses in Firefly, or the incorporation of nonsense-future words that are so often a central part of science fiction.

I hope that this trend continues and does some shaking up of the academic world. There is a pervasive feeling of separatism in academia, building a hard and fast barrier between anything speculative and “real” literature, which is hurtful and effectively rendering the discipline stagnant. This barrier is breaking down in the real world with these smart creatives doing whatever they want and doing it pretty damn well. (No one does post-modern metafiction better than pop-culture nerds like Whedon and co.) Hopefully it will trickle up to the ivory tower, too.

So maybe JJ Abrams can take a stab at Titus Andronicus. Maybe starring Benedict Cumberbatch. We’ll make a new seven degrees game.



Joe Hill’s Horns isn’t a horror novel

19 Jun

Continuing the theme of my last post, Joe hill is an excellent thief. When writers come in couples or in families, it can be fun to trace back techniques and habits, but I think it’s time to stop comparing Joe to his father. While Joe Hill certainly has some flavors of his father in his prose, so does, I would argue, every contemporary writer of thrillers and horror, including myself. He’s just that prolific and influential. Like the Simpsons.

But Horns isn’t plotted like a Stephen King novel, and it’s also not a horror or a thriller in the way King’s work would define it. In a lot of ways, Horns derives more from Eastern European magical realism like Kafka or Bulgakov.

Just look at the opening lines:

“Ignatius Marting Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things. He woke the next morning with a headache, put his hands to his temples, and felt something unfamiliar, a pair of knobby pointed protuberances. He was so ill—wet-eyed and weak—he didn’t think anything of it at first, was too hungover for thinking or worry. But when he was swaying above the toilet, he glanced at himself in the mirror over the sink and saw he had grown horns while he slept.”

To compare, Kafka’s Metamorphosis:

One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug. He lay on his armour-hard back and saw, as he lifted his head up a little, his brown, arched abdomen divided up into rigid bow-like sections. From this height the blanket, just about ready to slide off completely, could hardly stay in place. His numerous legs, pitifully thin in comparison to the rest of his circumference, flickered helplessly before his eyes.”

The hallmarks of magical realism are there right off, something fantastic shoved in to banalities. Joe Everyman wakes up with something impossible and learns something highly upsetting about the nature of humanity. As Ig goes out into the world, the surreal honesty of those he encounters reminds me of the reactions from the citizens of Moscow when they met the devil in Master and Margarita.

So how, you may ask, are Ig’s horns different from, say, the dome in King’s Under the Dome? Or the wicked painting in Rose Madder? Or any fantastic element in any traditional horror?

I asked a professor a similar question once while studying “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” (Or was it “Book of Sand”?) I wanted a distinction between “magical realism” and the kind of books that were rarely if ever assigned in a formal literature class. The professor gave me the classic porno run-around, “You know it when you see it.” He clearly wasn’t my favorite of professors. I got better answers from other professors later, but the difference didn’t sink in even then.

Genuine horror—everything from King to Lovecraft, even Poe who often stayed within the realms of the physically possible—requires a little bit of world-building, even if that world is similar to ours, give or take a ghost or two. There is a logic to how that alternate world works, a feeling of history and consequences built around the story. This is how speculative fiction always works, including sci-fi and fantasy, worlds built with their own interior logic—sometimes familiar, sometimes utterly fantastical.

Magical realism, however, doesn’t build a separate world for the characters to play out their troubles in with its own logic. There is no logic. There is emphasis on the idea that this world is our world with all the grit, trivialities, and obnoxiousness that come with being a real-live boy or girl. There is a randomness to the fantastical elements that satirizes the wild illogic that fills our actual daily lives.

Also, the fantastical element in MR is not usually the antagonist—the antagonist is a realistic villain or an internal conflict that is recognizable. The fantastical element, in all its nonsense and strangeness and potential for symbolism, shines a light on how weird real-life is, how strange and full of meaning it can be.

I am not making a value distinction here. Horror stories can certainly satirize, can certainly parallel true human issues and emotions and all that good stuff. But horror’s function, it seems to me, is to pull on the deep threads, the darkness that can lay underneath everyday life. While magical realism tries to show how horribly surface and familiar that darkness can be (or beauty, for it isn’t by nature dark like horror is, it just can be). Different strategies for to reach different truths through fiction, if you will allow me to be so general.

Horns is certainly dark, definitely scary, absolutely thrilling. But I think it comes from a different spring of storytelling than King’s world-building tales. Good for Joe.

Am I splitting hairs here? Or is it even important to classify a novel either way?


Edit: This is funny

Reading like a thief

12 Jun

Good writers borrow,

great writers steal. –TS Elliot

If you don’t have time to read,

    you don’t have the time –or the tools—to write. –Stephen King

I believe many moons ago I wrote about how studying writing makes you read differently, and that there is a strange sort of loss there. Because you’re devoting yourself to something that, as soon as you devote yourself to it, changes in its very nature. What once was an escape, a way of relaxing and turning your mind off, turns into active, energy-absorbing work. But like all work that is fueled by passion, it is fulfilling on a totally different level than it ever was as an escape.

We all know that writers must read to improve their craft, but it’s important to read consciously and with purpose. Writers must read constantly asking what can I take from this to improve my writing? Or, to put it another way, what can I steal?

Some lazy, good for nothing, assholes use Elliot’s wisdom as justification for blatant plagiarism. These shameless miscreants are probably bad writers, but they are definitely terrible thieves.

What’s the difference between a skilled thief and a kleptomaniac?

(Besides sheer dashing-ness.)

When a kleptomaniac walks into a room, he may look around and think What can I fit in my pockets? or What’s not bolted down? And then he ends up slipping out the door with a gumball machine like the spiky-haired kid in Can’t Hardly Wait.

When a skilled thief walks into a room, he may look around and think that hedge outside blocks the view of the door from the road, and the lock would take me about twenty seconds. Not because he’s actually planning on stealing anything, but just because that’s how he sees the world.

But even that isn’t the real difference between a good thief and a bad thief. Any idiot can lift something and avoid detection at that moment. It doesn’t even take a genius to steal a decent car. But if you then, after stealing your cherry Jag, proceed to drive that thing around town, you’re an idiot who will be caught sooner or later. The better the car, the sooner. Everyone knows you didn’t earn that Porsche. They look at you funny. Google the license plate, just out of curiosity. And you’re busted.

(Are you following my metaphor here? Good, ’cause I’m extending it a bit further.)

So what’s the real difference? Behind every good thief, there’s a good fence.

A good fence knows how to exchange stolen goods for things you can actually use in public. The good fence will take a hoard of loot and break it down into individual pieces and sell it to the four corners of the world. A fence knows all the good chop shops to take that stolen car to. So the thief can (eventually) take his profits and actually buy his own nice car, fine art, or collection of custom-made hats.

So a fence takes stolen materials, breaks them down, and figures out how to use and profit from them. So, in this extended metaphor, a fence is literary analysis.

It takes time, patience, and effort to question, break down into usable parts, and understand a good (or bad) piece of writing. Anyone one can CTRL-C/CTRL-V. Stealing from authors well means stealing techniques, ways out of common traps and pitfalls, notions on varying styles, and inspiration. The question writers ask when they finish a book should not be Did I like it? But What did I learn?

Some treasures I’ve recently “acquired:”

Joe Hill in Horns uses a simple and accessible technique for letting a character reveal a memory slowly, revealing pieces of back story in intense little pockets spread throughout the action-narrative. Pocketed.

Tana French’s Broken Harbor has a baller example of an unreliable first person narrator in detective fiction and shows than not all loose ends need be tied—some are better left hanging. Swiped.

Jess Walter shows how to cut the stupid small talk in Beautiful Ruins.
Boosted and chop-shopped, though I kept the fuzzy dice.

Rex Stout, thank you for the fact that characters don’t necessarily have to age to change and the word vagaries. Pilfered.

And Shakespeare, well, can we say fat kid in an unguarded candy store? Looted!

I could go on, but it would be, well, indiscrete.

Weighing in: Spoiler Alerts

5 Jun

In the wake of some shocking TV (which I haven’t actually seen yet), a lot of people are talking about spoilers and how, in a new age of TV where watching it as it comes on is almost out of fashion, the internet demands a gag order on talking about surprises in TV or movies.

This squawking has already elicited a good deal of responses from people about the ethics of spoiling, the statute of limitations, and the where the responsibility lies. I hope we can all agree that some complaints about spoiling are ridiculous. If you don’t know how The Great Gatsby ends, I’d like a word with your tenth grade English teacher. If seeing a picture of the mother’s face from How I Met Your Mother really ruined the show for you, you’re doing TV wrong.

I say ruined because that is what we’re talking about here, right? We are talking about when knowing something about the end or some twist beforehand completely takes the fun out of watching it for yourself. And to be sure, knowing ahead of time that some specific dramatic thing will happen can rob you of the emotional reaction you’d have if it was a genuine surprise.

But doesn’t that suggest that these stories that we must be so careful not to ruin for others are perhaps relying too much on shock value and twists to deliver emotion? After all, surprise is cheap.

Perhaps, instead of demanding that nothing be spoken about the new Game of Thrones episode, perhaps we should be demanding stories not so easily spoiled.

Let’s look at some stories that are not ruined by knowing significant events ahead of time. If you are super sensitive about spoilers, you might as well stop here, but really? Come on. I promise that knowing these “surprises” doesn’t actually do anything to ruin these wonderful stories. Because in these stories, it’s the journey that counts.

Anyone who is familiar with the cannon of stories Steven Moffat is working from could probably guess that Sherlock dies, but not really, at the end of the episode called “The Reichenbach Fall.” But even if you don’t have a set of these on the top of your shelf because they are too big for the shelf itself, knowing this doesn’t take anything away, because the wickedly cruel, beautifully twisted dance of psychopaths that led to this moment cannot be spoiled. Nor, for that matter, can the tear-jerking aftermath of Watson’s reaction. It cannot be reduced to a tweet or Facebook status update, no matter how many exclamation points are used. The emotional impact doesn’t come from the fact that he falls, but from how and why he falls. And that can only be experienced through actually watching the show. Which you all should do, if you haven’t already. Like—right now. Go.

While we’re talking about Steven Moffat, Doctor Who may be pretty close to an un-spoilable show.

I came on board the Doctor Who train relatively late, since I spent two years of graduate school pretending I wasn’t a sci-fi nerd. (What a silly waste that was.) So when I started watching, it was already Matt Smith’s territory. I came into it knowing already roughly which seasons would have a Doctor-death. I also saw pictures of the companions, so I roughly knew when they’d be coming/going too. That is why it took me three weeks to work up the courage to watch “The Journey’s End.” But when I did, it was awesome. I cried. I knew it was going to happen, had known when it was going to happen for episodes—and yet the emotional impact was certainly there.

I’m still behind in Doctor Who, with four episodes waiting in my mother’s DVR. I’ve been afraid that something will be spoiled for me, especially worried that someone will Tweet the Doctor’s name or something. But would even that really spoil it? Without context, would I even know what to make of it? I am looking forward to traveling on the last leg of Matt’s Smith’s journey with him, because it is how he gets there that is important, not where he ends up. (But I still don’t want to know his name beforehand. So, don’t be a jerk, internet.)

(A side note: Much of what I’ve been reading
about Doctor Who lately is calling it a kid’s show. What? Are we watching the same show?

        My worst nightmare = not for children.)

I’ve also noticed that when shows try to build up the “twist” factor of their plotlines, things tend to go downhill.

So, I’m sorry if this is a shock to you, but Ted and Robin really, really, really don’t end up together. I’m surprised people keep thinking that this will be the twist at the end since it would pretty much invalidate the whole narrative structure of the show.

There she is. The mother. Some people who happened on this picture before they saw the show were furious. I am flummoxed as to why.

HIMYM is, or at least was, built on the theme that the beauty of life is the journey—not the destination. It’s very narrative structure is geared towards this concept, because everyone is spoiled from the beginning. The reminiscing  narrator isn’t trying to spring on his kids who their mother is, but take them through the journey he had to go through to become who he was when he met her (which is BY FAR more interesting.) I’ve found all the hype the producers are piling on around these final “reveals” highly disappointing. The recent episodes of the show seem contrived to build tension—which to me is antithetical to everything I loved about the first several seasons. The show is getting worse because it’s becoming spoilable.

So, while tweeting deaths as they happen or wearing a “Dumbledore dies on page 596” T-shirt makes you a bit of a jerk, don’t let spoilers ruin stories for you. Because if you can really take away the pleasure of a story in 140 characters, then there wasn’t a whole lot there to begin with.


Querying sucks

8 May

Querying sucks

How I’m keeping track of rejections

Book vs. Film: First person narratives

29 Apr

I have a serious beef with first person present tense. It doesn’t allow for much in the way of character growth without clunky epiphanies (“I realize now how much of an ass I’ve been…”) or the more genuine, but equally dull, ambivalence and uncertainty (“I don’t know how I feel about…”). The reader doesn’t have perspective on the events because the character doesn’t have perspective, can’t have because everything is happening RIGHT NOW. It’s like trying to read a story through a peephole.( Not to mention that there is a strange paradox of storytelling in the first person present. “I run down the hall…” makes me want to say “No you’re not, you’re telling me a story.” But that may be metaphysically nit-picking, so I’ll let that go. For now.)

This is the heart of the reason why I think the Hunger Games movie is better than the book. (Ducks to avoid thrown objects) No, seriously, hear me out…

Sure, there were some unfortunate omissions, like all film adaptions: Madge, the creepy implications of the mutts in the final scenes, some missing background stories, etc. However, the film makes some really smart moves in terms of world and character building. The dialogue is carefully done: it does the heavy lifting of showing the rules in this alternate reality without the awkwardness of characters explaining things to each other that they would already know. (This always bugs the shit out of me, especially in science-heavy police procedurals.)

The additions made up for what was left out. I gladly give up underdeveloped Madge for the scenes of rebellion in District 11 and the conversations between the Game maker and President Snow. The real interest of this story is the girl who never meant to be a symbol for the rebellion, but found herself one because she makes smart, but selfless, choices. And that, after all, is what makes a really awesome heroine. In the books, we don’t really get this angle until Catching Fire because Katniss doesn’t know the impact of her actions until after the fact. Much of the first book focuses on the love triangle through Katniss’s confused, ambivalent thoughts. (Snore) The reader is trapped in the running perspective of a girl who doesn’t know how she feels. There is no opportunity for reflection or introspection, which is the heart of first person. In the film, we get all that uncertainty in a few well delivered looks on Jennifer Lawrence’s face. (Can we take a moment for how awesome Jennifer Lawrence is?)

There is one first person present tense book that rocked that tense and made a much better narrative than its corresponding film: We Need to Talk about Kevin.

This may be a stretch, since Shiver’s book isn’t in the simple first person present that Collins uses, but rather an epistolary novel. The journal like letters relate the protagonist’s (Eva/Tilda) life as it is now in the first/present POV, but with multiple flashbacks and references to the past. The first person narrative earns that POV because it is nearly all reflection and introspection. This is a seriously beautiful book. The narrator frankly and intelligently recounts her memories of being a mother to her horrifying son, though even with all her frankness, reveals more about herself than she meant to—thus is the true beauty of first person. The film, however, is absent this intelligent voice, and though it’s told with the same disjointed time-jumps, it’s difficult to connect to the mother as she is now, because she doesn’t have much of a voice, because she has no one to talk to. We see her, alone, trying to deal with her shattered life, but we don’t get any of what she’s learned about herself and the world. We don’t see how crazy intelligent she is. We don’t see that in the end, she still loves her son and how horribly unfair that is. We don’t see how like her son she is. The film is voyeurism, looking in at the mundane parts of a marred life without access to any of the subjects, but the book is an open door, a full access pass to this woman’s heart and mind. If you can do that in a movie, I haven’t seen it yet.

Both of these books fall into the category of I wish I had written this! But if I had written Hunger Games, I would have written it in past tense. Think of how that would open it up! Of how many more opportunities for depth and variety there would be. We Need to Talk about Kevin, though, makes all the right choices in voice and POV. Before the Hunger Games movie came out, a friend articulated a fear I shared. It would have been ruined if Katniss’s thoughts (But do I really like Peeta? The boy with the bread?) had been fed to us in voice-over. Maybe We Need to Talk about Kevin could have benefited from some voice over, a taste of Eva’s voice—but probably not. Just read the book.

Agent research is the writers’ online dating

10 Apr

First, I must give all apologies, constant readers (all twelve of you) for my hiatus. I was feverishly revising to enter a new contest and then I was feverishly researching agents to start querying after I’m cut from ABNA this Tuesday.

Querying agents feels remarkably like online dating, both in method and the overall feeling it gives after going through agent after agent for hours.

The agent profile and the online dating profile have a lot in common:

Like and dislikes

“Walks on the beach, spicy food, black and white photography” Vs. “Stories with strong female leads, thrillers, historical true crime, etc.

Accomplishments and Hopes

This is where they show how good that they already look on paper, but one day they hope to look even better on paper.

Preferred method of contact

    “Let’s get coffee…catch a game…fly a kite” Vs. “Please include a 1000 word synopsis within the body of your email….”

I don’t even see a difference: same words, different language.

You cull the ones that are obviously not right for you, then compare the ones left with the ideal match you have in your head. There are a few perfect ones (that may be out of your league) and others that are good but also seem approachable (the agent-next-door-types, you know).

Then you try for the connection:

Then you contact them…tempt them into contacting you back…each correspondence gets a little bit longer until…THE CALL!

All leading to hoping you both put your names on a binding piece of paper.

I rest my case.